Experimenting with a song’s key, tempo, instrumentation and basic feel can reveal a hidden hit.
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Whoever said, “You’re not selling the steak, you’re selling the sizzle” could have easily been talking about musical performance. In the world of songwriting, I’m someone who believes that getting the notes, chords and lyrics right does not mean you’re finished and ready to move on to your next song. There is so much that needs to be done to ensure that your song is the best it can possibly be.
If you aren’t spending any time experimenting with key, tempo, instrumentation, backing vocals or basic feel, you’re probably missing out on the possibility of sending your song over the top.
You may think that getting your song’s key right is easy. Every song has an easily identifiable vocal range, so it’s a simple matter of choosing a key that makes all the notes possible.
But pushing the range higher, beyond your normal upper limit, can give great results. “Don’t Let Me Down“, sung by John Lennon, would have lost most of its angst-ridden energy if, instead of choosing the key of E major and requiring John to scream out high G# over and over again, the song had been placed in a safer key.
Recently finished writing a song? Try these experiments:
- Try your song at different tempos and styles.
- Hand-in-hand with point #1 above, as you try faster tempos, experiment with a higher key, even if it requires you to scream out a note or two at the top end.
- Slow the song down, and try a lower key and quieter performance style.
- Try a different time signature.
- Try a different performance technique (e.g., if you’ve made a strumming guitar your basic backing sound, switch to finger-picking, or a different instrument completely.
- Try switching modes. If your song is primarily in minor, see what you can discover by switching to major, and vice versa.
The lesson here is: don’t fall in love with what you’ve written to the point that you fear making any changes at all.
YouTube is a great tool for seeing the power of experimentation, and what a new tempo, key and feel can do for a song. As one example, compare Willie Nelson’s version of “You Were Always On My Mind” to a completely different take by the 80’s group Pet Shop Boys.
By the way, when I watch videos on YouTube, I don’t usually read the viewer comments, because they don’t add a lot to the experience (to be polite about it.) But one comment by electri926 about the Pet Shop Boys version compared to the original Willie Nelson version is worth mentioning here:
The original song is good, but it sounds like the singer has given up on the relationship. In this one, it’s as though he still has hope for the future, and it’s nice to hear a break-up song that takes that route.
That’s exactly what a different tempo, instrumentation, key and approach can do for your music. It creates a subtext for the music, an inner meaning (or extra meaning) that can be exciting and fresh.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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